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Hiding in plain sight

Michael David C. Tan interviews transgender men on going stealth, which is – simplistically put – “hiding in plain sight”. Criticized by many for the act’s effect on LGBTQIA Pride, it is but a way to survive for some who do it, just as for some, it is “but a stage where you are still preparing not only yourself, but also those people around you who you know may have a hard time accepting the real you.”

THIS PHOTO IS ONLY USED FOR REPRESENTATION

Even if it was only an email interview (through transman Nick Fernandez), John* was still apprehensive. “I am a stealth transsexual man,” he said, “and I don’t want my cover to be blown.”

After some persuasion, he agreed to be interviewed, though “I won’t provide a picture; I will (just) answer the (emailed) questions.”

John knew and started to understand how trans people feel in his first year in college. Back then, he didn’t have a support group, and so “it was hard.”

Aware of the implications on Pride (with a capital “P”) of going stealth – i.e. that this is another version of “passing” (that is, acting as a member of the oppressing class), and that it further stigmatizes members of the LGBTQIA community because some members do not take pride in that community – going stealth was still a no-brainer because of the world’s continuing confusion with trans identity.

“The public already sees me as a male and calls me by my preferred name,” John says. For him, therefore, there is no need to “create confusion”.

John pays a lot of attention on the issue of “confusion”. “It will be beneficial to the (trans) community if the anti-discrimination law will be approved, and if they grant us the right to change our names and gender in all our documents for us transsexual and transgender people to avoid confusion. When I say confusion, this is based from my own experience, since – as mentioned – the public already sees me as a male and calls me by my preferred name. So wouldn’t it be better if what they see and how they refer to me will also be reflected in my documents? I find it more appropriate that way. It shows respect for us… and acceptance of us,” he said.

It is worth noting that going stealth varies for different people. For instance, for some, it is only to family members; while for others, it is to workmates; and still for others, to the world at large.

LGBT

STEALTH LIVING

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John is not the only one opting to go stealth, obviously.

James Roque*, who was interviewed by Sass Rogando Sasot for Outrage Magazine in 2009, found it hard to explain to other people about being transgender, and was particularly wary of “judgmental people”. And – after deciding that “I will definitely NOT survive living in the wrong body and being called the wrong pronouns for the rest of my life” – he decided to “hide” in plain sight.

There’s Joaquin* (also interviewed via Fernandez), who was emphatic when he said that, while he’d also agree to be interviewed, “I am a stealth transsexual man, which means I cannot and will not allow the magazine to publish my identity.”

Kin Mahinay – who willingly agreed to be interviewed for this article – decided to go stealth since he started taking hormones.

“I decided to go stealth because of (several) reasons… My siblings are all girls, and I was assigned female at birth, so my mom really had a hard time accepting my real identity. It came to a point that my father beat me, punched me (all over), and my mother wanted me to leave home when I told them that I like girls,” Kin said.

And so “I am stealth to my family, but I’m out (as trans) to my friends and schoolmates. Some of them hide the fact that I was assigned female at birth. They tell people that I am really a man.”

Yet another interviewee, Red*, started going stealth when he moved to Sydney, Australia.

“Once I boarded that plane from Brisbane (the first time I was here), I decided: ‘This is it.’,” he said.

For Red, “the decision wasn’t light… it wasn’t easy because I’ve always been out when I was in the Philippines. I’ve always been active when we were starting (a trans organization).”

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“When I went here, what I really wanted was less drama, less questions. And so when I learned that the society here is more accepting, more okay with trans people (that is, not making too much of it), so I thought, well…”

With this decision, for Red, there are (again) less dramas, less issues, so that he can just “live.”

BEING OUT

Outside their trans circles, staying not known is a goal for those who go stealth.

“I don’t intend to be famous or my name to be known by others,” John said.

Even now that many know of him because of his works related to trans education, John intends to remain stealth. “I just want to impart my knowledge, experiences and service as much as I can. As long as my efforts and my service to the LGBTQIA community, especially to my trans brothers, are appreciated, I will die a happy man,” he said.

In Red’s case, “out of all the people in Australia, there are only four people who know who I am, and what I was.” These include a friend from the Philippines, a classmate from the Philippines (with whom Red said he never had to explain his situation), and a woman who accidentally discovered about Red’s situation. With the latter, Red had to ask if it’s “alright if we just kept this to ourselves,” and fortunately for Red, the woman had a transgender cousin, so she understood this request.

Yet another person who knows is Red’s current girlfriend. “We started out as friends, and she never knew. And through the course of everything, I made her a video of me (telling) my story. I couldn’t get myself to explain it face to face,” he said. They’re still together.

Red, nonetheless, said that “I do intend to come out.”

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Kin – for his side – wants to, eventually, come out. “I would like to be able to do that. In time. When I can prove myself to them that even if I’m a transgender, I can excel at work, and help them to raise my siblings,” he said. “I know that (when that time comes), they will still accept me after they know about my transition. But not know since I’m just starting to build my career.”

Kin is very cautious with being out to people, though.

“Some people,” he said, “enjoy outing me in public.”

And so “I find it hard to trust others, even if they are your friends or even the closest friends. There are still many who can’t accept and support you in what you are going through. It is much safer when you just keep silent, and let the questions run out of their heads without answering them. It is not my job to force them to listen, or ask for their acceptance anyway.”

DEALING WITH ‘PRIDE’

By going stealth, Kin does not believe that he is necessarily ashamed of being part of the LGBTQIA community. “In fact, I show my support by attending and joining LGBTQIA events,” he said, adding that, “anyway, I don’t intend to stay stealth for a long time. I’m just waiting for the right time to get out in public… when we’re all ready.”

The decision to go stealth was particularly hard for Red since, as he said, “I had a voice in the Philippines, but not here in Australia just yet.”

Red added: “When I decided to go stealth, it wasn’t because I wasn’t proud (of being part of the LGBTQIA community). People I know would say, ‘Red is one of those people who go out of their way to explain these kinds of things.’ But my going stealth is not to shame to community I’m part of. It was a very hard decision (to make). I envy those who have the balls to just go out there and be themselves. My decision to go stealth was because I don’t want drama –there’s too much drama back home, back in the Philippines; too many bashing; too many questions. And I don’t want to deal with that here because my support system here isn’t that great.”

FACING CHALLENGES

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For Kin, by going stealth, “the only challenge I’m seeing is being afraid of being found out. What if someone outed me to my parents? I don’t know what to say to them if they find out. I am also afraid of what they will say to me; on how they will react, and if they will still accept me after they know that I’m a transgender.”

Red said that “there are a lot of challenges (going stealth). No one can see your photo ID. No one can see your details. You can’t just blurt it out. You can’t just have evidence lying around. Another challenge is my participation in an organization. I can’t be as open as I would want to be. Not because I don’t want to, but because it might compromise my being stealth here in Australia. So there are a lot of sacrifices,” he said.

The limitations break Red’s heart because, now, he is unable to help in pushing for the rights of LGBTQIA people. “But this is what needs to be done,” he said.

LACK OF UNDERSTANDING

A key issue is the pervasive lack of understanding of transgenderism, even within the LGBTQIA community.

John, for one, is constantly bugged that, even within the LGBTQIA community, “there remains a lack of knowledge about the different people (falling under the umbrella LGBTQIA acronym). This is especially true to us transsexuals and transgenders.”

And yet it is in solidarity with members of the LGBTQIA community (i.e. trans community) that belongingness is found.

In 2011, “I started joining the PinoyFTM, and I became concerned and more aware about the situation of the LGBT community,” John said. This is because, for him, there continue to be numerous issues within the LGBTQIA community.

Joaquin himself is aware that it is “only right that we educate others (about trans issues).” That is, of course, even if he chooses to be an “invisible” educator of sort.

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“I never consider myself as an LGBT advocate,” he said. “I am just doing what I know is the right thing to do.”

For Joaquin, “what got me into LGBT issues is, perhaps, myself. Three years ago, I was in a bad place. To add to that, not being able to find a lot of materials for and about the transgender community in the Philippines was extremely frustrating. So I took it upon myself to produce the needed resources and tools for the transgender community.”

Like John, Joaquin is thankful that “PinoyFTM gave me the opportunity to (be of help).” He continues to be inspired by those “who are fighting for our freedom, equality and rights because I also want what they are fighting for.”

FOCUS NEEDED

For the interviewees, there remain key issues that the LGBT community as a whole should focus on.

Foremost is the lack of legal protection for LGBTQIA people, considering how the anti-discrimination bill continues to languish in both Houses of Congress.

Joaquin is also wary of “the fact that discrimination within the community exists, and it is really disappointing. Of all people, why would we submit ourselves to that kind of treatment? We should be the ones promoting equality, not destroying the concept of it. As someone who experienced discrimination within the community, I would want for us to address this issue,” Joaquin said.

Not surprisingly, this may be because “a large number of people in the community remain largely unaware of basic LGBTQIA terms and concepts which can be very problematic when reaching out to them.”

“I am a very private man and I value my stealth status pretty well. But seeing the men and women who risk everything just to come out in public to fight for and represent the community inspires me to help in my own way,” Joaquin said. “It takes an incredible amount of courage to come out and speak on behalf of the community. I will always have a high regard for them.”

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Joaquin eyes to “establish a career in the government to know more about how things go on down there. After that, I plan to take up law and hopefully pass the bar examinations. I wish to be a civil rights lawyer someday since our country is literally bereft of any laws favoring the LGBTQIA community. I think this is probably the best way to give back to the community, which has helped me in more ways than I can imagine,” he said.

Red has three messages to other transmen.

“(At one point in our lives, we) were all at a crossroad, and all we had to do was turn left or right. So whatever decision that you make, make sure that you know what you’re getting into,” he said. “At times, we don’t. But in the end, remember that it is your life – and no matter the number of people pushing you to go this way or that, remember it’s only you who will be there at the end.”

Secondly, “strive. Never stop inspiring people and being inspired by people. You don’t have to be a celebrity to inspire people… So never stop.”

And lastly, “love yourself. Embrace yourself. Embrace the fact of who you are. Some people may not… agree with it, but be good to yourself. Love yourself, and everything starts from there.”

In the end, for Kin, “being stealth is not something to be ashamed of. It does not mean you are ashamed of who you are, too. Sometimes, it is but a stage where you are still preparing not only yourself, but also those people around you who you know may have a hard time accepting the real you. It will need all the guts, time and patience (to be out). At first, it will be really hard; but sooner, the time will come when everyone can accept who you are. Stay strong. Just live life to the fullest,” Kin ended.

*NAMES CHANGED AS REQUESTED BY INTERVIEWEES TO PROTECT THEIR PRIVACY

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